Fire leaves blackened, smoky marsh

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Firefighters stood guard at the edges of a smoky marsh Tuesday to protect homes from possible flare ups the day after 20-foot flames blackened half of the 5-mile-wide nature preserve.

The fire Monday sent up billowing smoke that darkened the horizon in suburban Mentor during afternoon rush hour, but it spared thousands of homes near the 673-acre Mentor Marsh State Nature Preserve.

There was no threat Tuesday to homes, Mentor Fire Department Deputy Chief Thomas Talcott said. The only residential property damage was a scorched deck. One firefighter suffered a minor ankle injury.

Some smoldering spots in the marsh's center were allowed to continue to burn out on their own Tuesday, Talcott said.

The cause was under investigation, but Talcott said a person probably set the fire on purpose or accidentally.

"Generally, there is only two ways it can happen, from lightning or by human hands. I don't think lightning was a factor," he said.

On Monday, firefighters sent convoys of water trucks through winding suburban streets and dirt roads to dampen brush and contain the wind-swept fire at the marsh about 25 miles northeast of Cleveland.

"When I came home, all of this was black," said Richard Kruger, 39, surveying the burned vista behind his backyard.

Because of the muck, firefighters fought the blaze from the marsh edge.

"It kept the fire from advancing up the hill here," said Kruger, who had two garden hoses ready if a smoldering tree stump near his property line flared up.

Kruger saw smoke when he left work Monday afternoon 5 miles from home.

"I was like, 'Hurry up and get home.' I was worried about my home here," he said.

Officials said a dry spring had increased the fire risk at the marsh.

The fire, which started in mid-afternoon Monday, destroyed about 350 to 400 acres of 6-feet tall grasses, Battalion Chief Dale Lewis said.

The grass reeds have an oily base that causes black smoke and fuels flames similar to an oil fire, Lewis said. The smell of smoke was in the air and falling ash soiled yards and patios.

Fires during dry periods have been a problem in the marsh in past years. The last large fire, burning 350 acres, occurred in May 1992 and was caused by two 11-year-olds playing with matches.

The preserve located just south of Lake Erie is one of the area's largest remaining natural wetlands.

The marsh curves in a crescent, surrounded by 2,000 to 3,000 one- and two-story homes. Two nearby elementary schools kept students inside during the first hours of the fire.

The fire burned quickly in a growth of Phragmites, a type of reed grass that can grow up to 12-feet high.

Mostly managed by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the preserve was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1966 and occupies an abandoned channel of the Grand River.

Harvey Webster, the museum's wildlife resources director, said it was too early to tell whether the fire would affect wildlife and plant life.

Talcott said the marsh will "green up" quickly because the fire did not affect plants' roots.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)